Emerging adulthood and early adulthood

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Emerging adulthood is a hypothetical phase of the life span between adolescence and full-fledged adulthood which encompasses late adolescence and early adulthood, proposed by Jeffrey Arnett in a 2000 article in the American Psychologist.[1] It primarily describes people living in developed countries, but it is also experienced by young people in urban wealthy families in the Global South.[2] The term describes young adults who do not have children, do not live in their own home, or do not have sufficient income to become fully independent in their early to late 20s. Arnett suggests emerging adulthood is the distinct period between 18 and 25 years of age where adolescents become more independent and explore various life possibilities. Arnett argues that this developmental period can be isolated from adolescence and young adulthood.[1] Emerging adulthood is a new demographic, is contentiously changing, and some[3] believe that twenty-somethings have always struggled with "identity exploration, instability, self-focus, and feeling in-between".[4] Arnett called this period "roleless role because emerging adults do a wide variety of activities and not constrained by any sort of "role requirements".[1] The developmental theory is highly controversial within the developmental field, with developmental psychologists contested over the legitimacy of Arnett's theories and methods.

Historical context[edit]

Distinction from young adulthood and adolescence[edit]

Arnett suggests that there are a few reasons why the term young adulthood is not fit to describe the developmental period of the late teens and early twenties. First, the term "young adulthood" suggests that at this developmental stage, adulthood has already been reached. Arnett states that most people in this developmental stage believe they have not yet reached adulthood.[5] Instead, they believe they are slowly progressing into adulthood, and thus the term "emerging adulthood" is much more appropriate. Emerging adults do not see themselves as adolescents, but many of them also do not see themselves entirely as adults.[6] When asked whether they feel they have reached adulthood, the majority of Americans in their late teens and early twenties answer "in some respects yes, in some respects no".[6]

If the years 18-25 are classified as "young adulthood," Arnett believes it is then difficult to find an appropriate term for the thirties. Lumping the late teenage years, twenties, and thirties together is illogical because these age periods are distinct from each other. For example, most individuals between 18–20 years of age in the United States don't see themselves as adults. They are still in the process of obtaining an education, are unmarried, and are childless. By age thirty, most of these individuals do see themselves as adults, based on the belief that they have more fully formed "individualistic qualities of character" such as self-responsibility, financial independence, and independence in decision-making. Arnett suggests that many of the individualistic characteristics associated with adult status correlate to, but are not dependent upon, the role responsibilities associated with a career, marriage, and/or parenthood.[1] Currently, it is appropriate to define adolescence as the period spanning ages 10 to 18. This is because people in this age group in the United States typically live at home with their parents, are undergoing pubertal changes, attend middle schools or high schools, and are involved in a "school-based peer culture". All of these characteristics are no longer normative after the age of 18, and it is, therefore, considered inappropriate to call the late teenage years and early twenties "adolescence" or "late adolescence". Furthermore, in the United States, the age of 18 is the age at which people are able to legally vote and citizens are granted full rights upon turning 21 years of age.[5]

Exploration of identity[edit]

One of the most important features of emerging adulthood is that this age period allows for exploration in love, work, and worldviews more than any other age period. The process of identity formation emerges in adolescence but mostly takes place in emerging adulthood. Regarding love, although adolescents in the United States usually begin dating between ages 12 and 14, they usually view this dating as recreational. It is not until emerging adulthood that identity formation in love becomes more serious.[5] Emerging adults are considering their own developing identities as a reference point for a lifetime relationship partner, so they explore romantically and sexually as there is less parental control.[7] While in the United States during adolescence dating usually occurs in groups and in situations such as parties and dances, in emerging adulthood, relationships last longer and often include sexual relations as well as cohabitation.[8]

As far as work, the majority of working adolescents in the United States tend to see their jobs as a way to make money for recreational activities rather than preparing them for a future career.[9] In contrast, 18- to 25-year-olds in emerging adulthood view their jobs as a way to obtain the knowledge and skills that will prepare them for their future adulthood careers. Because emerging adults have the possibility of having numerous work experiences, they are able to figure out what type of work they are good at as well find what type of work they want to pursue for the rest of their life.[1] Undergoing changes in worldviews is a main division of cognitive development during emerging adulthood.[10]

People in emerging adulthood that choose to attend college often begin college or university with the worldview they were raised with and learned in childhood and adolescence. However, emerging adults who have attended college or university have been exposed to and have considered different worldviews, and eventually commit to a worldview that is distinct from the worldview with which they were raised by the end of their college or university career.[10]

Subjective difference[edit]

When Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 are asked whether they believe they have reached adulthood, most do not answer with a "no" or a "yes", but answer with "In some respects yes, in some respects no".[11] It is clear from this ambiguity that most emerging adults in the United States feel they have completed adolescence but not yet entered adulthood.[12][13][14]

A number of studies have shown that regarding people in their late teens and early twenties in the United States, demographic qualities such as completing their education, finding a career, getting married, and becoming parents are not the criteria used in determining whether they have reached adulthood.[15][16][17][18] Rather, the criteria that determine whether adulthood has been reached are character qualities, such as being able to make independent decisions and taking responsibility for one’s self.[14][17][18] In America, these character qualities are usually experienced in the mid to late twenties, thus confirming that emerging adulthood is distinct subjectively.[16]

Why emerging adulthood is distinct demographically[edit]

Emerging adulthood is the sole age period where there is nothing that is demographically consistent.[19][20] At this time, adolescents in the United States up to age 18, over 95% live at home with at least one parent, 98% are not married, under 10% have become parents, and more than 95% attend school.[21] Similarly, people in their thirties are also demographically normative: 75% are married, 75% are parents, and under 10% attend school.[21] Residential status and school attendance are two reasons that the period of emerging adulthood is incredibly distinct demographically. Regarding residential status, emerging adults in the United States have very diverse living situations.[5] About one third of emerging adults attend college and spend a few years living independently while partially relying on adults.[22]

Contrastingly, 40% of emerging adults do not attend college but live independently and work full-time.[22] Finally, around two-thirds of emerging adults in the United States cohabitate with a romantic partner.[23] Regarding school attendance, emerging adults are extremely diverse in their educational paths (Arnett, 2000, p. 470-471). Over 60% of emerging adults in the United States enter college or university the year after they graduate from high school.[24] However, the emerging adulthood years that follow college are extremely diverse - only about 32% of 25- to 29-year-olds have finished four or more years of college.[21]

This is because higher education is usually pursued non-continuously, where some pursue education while they also work, and some do not attend school for periods of time.[5] Further contributing to the variance, about one third of emerging adults with bachelor's degrees pursue a postgraduate education within a year of earning their bachelor's degree.[25] Thus, because there is so much demographic instability, especially in residential status and school attendance, it is clear that emerging adulthood is a distinct entity based on its demographically non-normative qualities, at least in the United States. Some emerging adults end up moving back home after college graduation, which tests the demographic of dependency. During college, they may be completely independent, but that could quickly change afterwards when they are trying to find a full-time job with little direction on where to start their career.

Physiological development[edit]

Biological changes[edit]

Emerging adulthood and adolescence differ significantly with regards to puberty and hormonal development.[26] While there is considerable overlap between the onset of puberty (typically between the ages of 10 and 11 in girls and 11 and 12 in boys) and the developmental stage referred to as adolescence, there are considerably fewer hormonal and physical changes taking place in individuals between the ages of 18-25. As most girls finish puberty between the ages of 15 and 17,[27][28][29] and most boys finish by the time they are 16–17 years of age,[28] emerging adults have reached a stage of full hormonal maturity and are now fully, physically equipped for sexual reproduction. Ironically, while "emerging adults" might not feel ready for parenthood, women reach levels of peak fertility throughout this period of time (usually at some point in their early 20s).[30]

Emerging adulthood is usually thought of as a time of peak physical health and performance as individuals are usually less susceptible to disease and more physically agile during this period than later stages of adulthood. However, emerging adults are generally more likely to contract sexually transmitted infections, as well as to adopt unhealthy behavioral patterns and lifestyle choices.[31]

Cognitive development[edit]

While many people believe that the brains of emerging adults are fully developed, they are in fact still developing into their adult forms. Many connections within the brain are strengthened and those that are unused are pruned away.[32] Several brain structures develop that allow for greater processing of emotions and social information. Areas of the brain used for planning and for processing risk and rewards also undergo important developments during this stage.[32] These developments in brain structure and the resulting implications are one factor that leads emerging adults to be considered more mature than adolescents. This is due to the fact that they make fewer impulsive decisions and rely more on planning and evaluating of situations.

While brain structures continue to develop during emerging adulthood, the cognition of emerging adults is an area that receives the majority of attention. Arnett explains, "Emerging adulthood is a critical stage for the emergence of complex forms of thinking required in complex societies."[33] Crucial changes take place in their sense of self and capacity for self-reflection. At this stage, emerging adults often decide on a particular worldview and are able to recognize that other perspectives exist and are valid as well.[33] While cognition generally becomes more complex, education level plays an important role in this development.[33] Not all emerging adults reach the same advanced level in cognition because of the variety of education received during this age period.

Abnormal development[edit]

Much research has been directed at studying the onset of lifetime DSM disorders to dispel the common thought that most disorders begin earlier in life. Because of this reasoning, many people that show signs of disorders do not seek help due to its stigmatization. The research shows that those with various disorders will not feel symptoms until emerging adulthood. Kessler and Merikangas reported that "50% of emerging adults between the ages of 18 and 25 experience at least one psychiatric disorder." Not only is the emergence of various disorders prevalent in emerging adulthood, but the chance of developing a disorder drastically decreases at age 28.[34][35]

Seventy-five percent of any lifetime DSM-IV anxiety, mood, impulse-control and substance abuse disorder begins before age 24. Most onsets at this age will not be, or become, comorbid. The median onset interquartile range of substance use disorders is 18-27, while the median onset age is 20. The median onset age of mood disorders is 25. Anxiety disorders tend to begin at 25.[36]

Even disorders that begin earlier, like schizophrenia spectrum diagnoses, can reveal themselves within the age range of emerging adulthood. Often, patients will not seek help until several years of symptoms have passed, if at all.[34] For example, those diagnosed with social anxiety disorder will rarely seek treatment until age 27 or later. Typically, symptoms of more severe disorders, such as major depression, begin at age 25 as well.[37][38]

With the exception of some phobias, symptoms of many disorders begin to appear and are diagnosable during emerging adulthood. Major efforts have been taken to educate the public and influence those with symptoms to seek treatment past adolescence. There is minimal but intriguing evidence that those who attend college appear to have less of a chance of showing symptoms of DSM-IV disorders. In one study, "they were significantly less likely to have a diagnosis of drug use disorder or nicotine dependence". In addition, "bipolar disorder was less common in individuals attending college". However, other research reports that chance of alcohol abuse and addiction is increased with college student status.[39]


Parent-child relationship[edit]

Emerging adulthood is characterized by a reevaluation of the parent-child relationship, primarily in regard to autonomy. As a child switches from the role of a dependent to the role of a fellow adult, the family dynamic changes significantly. At this stage, it is important that parents acknowledge and accept their child's status as an adult.[40] This process may include gestures such as allowing increased amounts of privacy and extending trust. Granting this recognition assists the increasingly independent offspring in forming a strong sense of identity and exploration at a time when it is most crucial.[41]

There is varied evidence regarding the continuity of emerging adults' relationships with parents, although most of the research supports the fact that there is moderate stability. A parent-child relationship of higher quality often results in greater affection and contact in emerging adulthood.[42] Attachment styles tend to remain stable from infancy to adulthood.[43] An initial secure attachment assists in healthy separation from parents while still retaining intimacy, resulting in adaptive psychological function.[44] Changes in attachment are often associated with negative life events, as described below.

Divorce and remarriage of parents often result in a weaker parent-child relationship,[45] even if no adverse effects were apparent during childhood.[46] When parental divorce occurs in early adulthood, it has a strong, negative impact on the child’s relationship with their father.[47]

However, if parents and children maintain a good relationship throughout the divorce process, it could act as a buffer and reduce the negative effects of the experience. A positive parent-child relationship after parental divorce may also be facilitated by the child’s understanding of divorce. Understanding the complexity of the situation and not dwelling on the negative aspects may actually assist a young adult’s adjustment, as well as their success in their own romantic relationships.[48][49]

Despite the increasing need for autonomy that emerging adults experience, there is also a continuing need for support from parents, although this need is often different and less dependent than that of children and earlier adolescents. Many people over the age of 18 still require financial support in order to further their education and career,[50] despite an otherwise independent lifestyle. Furthermore, emotional support remains important during this transition period. Parental engagement with low marital conflict results in better adjustment for college students.[51] This balance of autonomy and dependency may seem contradictory, but relinquishing control while providing necessary support may strengthen the bond between parents and offspring and may even provide space for children to be viewed as sources of support.[52]

Parental support may come in the form of co-residence, which has varied effects on an emerging adult's adjustment. The proportion of young adults living with their parents has steadily increased in recent years, largely due to financial strain, difficulty finding employment, and the necessity of higher education in the job field.[53] The economic benefit of a period of co-residence may assist an emerging adult in exploration of career options. In households with lower socioeconomic status, this arrangement may have the added benefit of the young adult providing support for the family, both financial and otherwise.

Co-residence can also have negative effects on an emerging adult’s adjustment and autonomy. This may hinder parents’ ability to acknowledge their child as an adult,[54] while home-leaving promotes psychological growth and satisfying adult-to-adult relationships with parents characterized by less confrontation.[55] Living in physically separate households can help both a young adult and a parent acknowledge the changing nature of their relationship.[56]

Sexual relationships[edit]

There are a wide variety of factors that influence sexual relationships during emerging adulthood. It is first important to define sexual relations by emerging adult standards. In the United States, typically oral sex is not considered sexual intercourse by most emerging adults.[26] However, vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse are consistently viewed as sexual intercourse by emerging adults.

In the United States, sexual relationships have changed in the recent decades in accordance with society’s changing views. In the 1950s and 1960s, about 75% of people between the ages of 20-24 engaged in premarital sex. Today, that number is 90%.[26] Individuals’ race, ethnicity, and culture also influence the amount of sexual experience and relationships one has. For instance, 86% of white males between the ages of 20-24 report that they have had vaginal sex with the opposite sex, 85% have had oral sex, and 30% have had anal sex.[26] For African American males, these numbers are 89%, 80%, and 40%.[26] For Hispanic males, 95%, 78%, and 39%.[26] For white females between the ages of 20-24, 88% have had vaginal sex, 89% have had oral sex, and 36% have had anal sex.[26] For African American females, these numbers are 89%, 83%, and 19%.[26] For Hispanic females, 90% have had vaginal sex, 72% have had oral sex, and 24% have had anal sex.[26] Also, students in 4-year colleges often have less sexual experience than students in 2 year community colleges and non students.[26] The average college student has 1 sexual partner a year, and by the late 20s, just 1 in 5 males and 1 in 3 females have had only 1 or 2 sexual partners.[26]

Since emerging adults are having more sex, unintentional pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and diseases (STIs/STDs) are a central issue. Surveys report that only 50% of males and 33.3% of females reported using a condom the last time they had sex.[26] Furthermore, 15% of emerging adults within the ages of 18-24 reported that they had been drinking the last time they had sex.[26] The Center for Disease Control and Prevention approximates that of the 19 million STIs that occur each year, half are in people between the ages of 15-24.[26] Also, half of women aged 20–24 are infected with HPV.[26] In women aged 18–24, 66.7% of pregnancies are unintentional.[26]

Individual racial, ethnic and cultural groups also influence one's tendency to engage in protected or unprotected sex. Racial and ethnic minorities tend to engage in more high-risk sexual practices than whites.[26] This is evident from the fact that 60% of African American women have 4 or more sexual partners, whereas 40% of white women report having 4 or more sexual partners (in that age group).[26] African American women were also twice as likely to have unprotected sex.[26] Further, African American males represent 60% of HIV/AIDS cases in emerging adults.[26] Additionally, college students that are sexually active are more likely to use contraceptives than non-college students.[26]

As individuals move through emerging adulthood, they are more likely to engage in safe and monogamous sexual relationships.

Emerging adulthood and culture[edit]

Demographers distinguish between developing countries, which constitute more than 80% of the world's population,[57] and the economically advanced, industrialized nations that form the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). This includes countries like the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, all of which have significantly higher median incomes and educational attainment and significantly lower rates of illness, disease, and early death.[58]

The theory of emerging adulthood is specifically applicable to cultures within these OECD nations,[58] and as a stage of development has only emerged over the past half century.[59] It is specific to "certain cultural-demographic conditions, specifically widespread education and training beyond secondary school and entry into marriage and parenthood in the late twenties or beyond".[60]

Furthermore, emerging adulthood occurs only within societies that allow for occupational shifts, with emerging adults often experiencing frequent job changes before settling on particular job by the age of 30.[59] Arnett also argues that emerging adulthood happens in cultures that allow for a period of time between adolescence and marriage, the marker of adulthood.[61] Such marital and occupational instability found among emerging adults can be attributed to the strong sense of individualization found in cultures that allow for this stage of development; in individualized cultures, traditional familial and institutional constraints have become less pronounced than in previous times or in unindustrialized/developing cultures, allowing for more personal freedom in life decisions.[59] However, emerging adulthood even occurs in industrialized nations that do not value individualization, as is the case in some Asian countries discussed below.

Up until the latter portion of the 20th century in OECD countries, and contemporarily in developing countries around the word, young people made the transition from adolescence to young adulthood around or by the age of 22, when they settled into long-lasting, obligation-filled familial and occupational roles.[58] Therefore, in societies where this trend still prevails, emerging adulthood does not exist as a widespread stage of development.

Among OECD countries, there is a general "one size fits all" model in regards to emerging adulthood, having all undergone the same demographic changes that resulted in this new stage of development between adolescence and young adulthood. However, the shape emerging adulthood takes can even vary between different OECD countries,[58] and researchers have only recently begun exploring such cross-national differences.[59] For instance, researchers have determined that Europe is the area where emerging adulthood lasts the longest, with high levels of government assistance and median marriage ages nearing 30,[62] compared to the U.S. where the median marriage age is 27.[63]

Emerging adult communities in East Asia may be most dissimilar from their European and American counterparts, for while they share the benefits of affluent societies with strong education and welfare systems, they do not share as strong a sense of individualization. Historically and currently, East Asian cultures have emphasized collectivism more so than those in the West.[58] For instance, while Asian emerging adults similarly engage in individualistic identity exploration and personal development, they do so within more constrictive boundaries set by familial obligation. For example, European and American emerging adults consistently list financial independence as a key marker of adulthood, while Asian emerging adults consistently list capable of supporting parents financially as a marker with equal weight.[64] Furthermore, while casual dating and premarital sex has become normative in the West, in Asia parents still discourage such practices, where they remain "rare and forbidden".[58] In fact, about 75% of emerging adults in the U.S. and Europe report having had premarital sexual relations by the age of 20, whereas less than 20% in Japan and South Korea reported the same.[65]

While emerging adulthood exemplars are found mainly within the middle and upper classes of OECD countries, the stage of development still seems to occur across classes, with the main difference between different ones being length—on average, young people in lower social classes tend to enter adulthood two years before those in upper classes.[58]

While emerging adulthood occurs on a wide scale only in OECD countries, developing countries may also exhibit similar phenomena in certain population subgroups. In contrast to those in poor or rural parts of developing nations, who have no emerging adulthood and sometimes no adolescence due to comparatively early entry into marriage and adult-like work, young people in wealthier urban classes have begun to enter stages of development that resemble emerging adulthood, and the amount to do so is rising.[58] Such individuals may develop a bicultural or hybrid identity, with part of themselves identifying with local culture and another part participating in the professional culture of the global economy. One finds examples of such a situation among the middle class young people in India, who lead the globalized economic sector while still, for the most part, preferring to have arranged marriages and taking care of their parents in old age.[66] While it is more common for emerging adulthood to occur in OECD countries, it is not always true that all young people of those societies have the opportunity to experience these years of change and exploration.[1]


Emerging adulthood is not just an idea being talked about by psychologists, the media has propagated the concept as well. Hollywood has produced multiple movies where the main conflict seems to be a "grown" adult's reluctance to actually "grow" up and take on responsibility. Failure to Launch and Step Brothers are extreme examples of this concept. While most takes on emerging adulthood (and the problems that it can cause) are shown in a light-humored attempt to poke fun at the idea, a few films have taken a more serious approach to the plight. Adventureland, Take Me Home Tonight, Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home are comedy-dramas that exhibit the plight of today's emerging adult. Television also is capitalizing on the concept of emerging adulthood with sitcoms such as$h*! My Dad Says and Big Lake.[67]

However, it is not just on television where society sees the world becoming aware of this trend. In spring 2010, The New Yorker magazine showcased a picture of a post-grad hanging his PhD on the wall of his bedroom as his parents stood in the doorway.[68] People do not have to seek out these media sources to find documentation of the emerging adulthood phenomenon. News sources about the topic are abundant. Nationwide, it is being found that people entering their 20s are faced with multitudes of living problems creating problems that this age group has received a lot of attention for. The Occupy movement is an example of what has happened to the youth of today and exhibits the frustration of today's emerging adults. Other television shows and films showcasing emerging/early adulthood are Girls, How I Met Your Mother, and Less Than Zero.


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